Bristol’s air kills. Each year, nearly 300 premature deaths in the city are attributable to air pollution, according to a report commissioned by council and carried out by the independent organisation Air Quality Consultants in 2017. Traffic accidents, by contrast, claim just 12 lives a year. On average, a day spent on the streets of Bristol does as much damage as smoking between 1–2 cigarettes, and the same goes for babies, children and the elderly.
Air pollution does not affect the city’s citizens equally, though. Instead, in Bristol, as with other parts of the country, it is the inner city neighbourhoods who pay the highest price.
Research by the University of the West of England, published in 2017, examined the link between poverty and exposure to air pollution. It shows that Bristol’s wealthier commuter residents experience less air pollution than people in the inner city. Residents in central wards are, in effect, paying the price for commuters’ pollution.
This injustice can be clearly seen in Bristol’s mortality data. While air pollution accounts on average for 8.5% of all premature deaths in the city, according to the council’s report, in some poorer central wards that figure is nearly 11%. In Lawrence Hill, for instance, which is surrounded by busy through-roads, the mortality rate from air pollution-related illnesses stands at 10.8%. The ward also has the highest levels of childhood asthma in the city. By contrast, in the more affluent Westbury-on-Trym and Henleaze, the rate is 7.9%.
As may be expected, the central, more deprived wards have lower levels of car ownership. Households are less likely to own multiple cars, drive less, and typically have lower household emissions overall than wealthier areas.
Dr Jo Barnes, who led the study at UWE, said: “The differential between those who are generating the emissions, and those who are suffering from them is something we need to tackle very keenly.”
Air pollution in Numbers
the approximate number of deaths attributed to air pollution each year in Bristol
the percentage of deaths in Bristol attributed to air pollution each year
the percentage of nitrogen dioxide that is from local, man-made sources, over half of which being from local road traffic
the safe level of exposure to particulate matter – there is no safe level of exposure
Source: Health impacts of air pollution in Bristol, Air Quality Consultants, 2017
Solutions on the horizon?
So how can air pollution be effectively tackled? One idea that looks set to be adopted in Bristol is a Clean Air Zone (CAZ). This would lead to highly polluting vehicles (such as older diesels) being charged to enter the city centre. Through these charges, the council hopes to deter drivers and prevent illegal breaches of air quality limits.
Jerome Thomas, Green Party councillor for Clifton, is wary of pinning too much hope on a CAZ. “We’ve got to be much more ambitious about getting people out of cars. Currently, the city is excessively congested, and if we grow and car usage stays the same, it will be total gridlock. We need action on [public] transport now.”
WHY I WROTE THIS
Nothing is more important than the air we breathe. And it is no secret that Bristol’s air is filthy, and getting filthier. What is hidden, though, is the extent to which air pollution does not affect our fellow citizens equally. Simply put, the poorest suffer the most. I thought this injustice couldn’t – and shouldn’t – be allowed to continue to be unexamined and unheard. I sincerely hope it helps open the eyes and ears of those in power.
CAZ’s are in some ways haphazard, imperfect solutions, but go some way in dealing with an urgent public health crisis. Some critics have pointed out that CAZ’s rely on widely-criticised emissions data. Under the council’s proposed plans, less polluting ‘Euro 6’ diesel engines and ‘Euro 4’ petrol engines will be exempt from charges. But as the infamous ‘dieselgate’ scandal showed, under real-world conditions car engines are far more polluting than manufacturers promise. Indeed, some Euro 6 engines have been found to release up to eleven times more pollutants when on the streets than in laboratory conditions.
Bristol council is also considering other, more localised options to tackle air pollution from traffic. One proposal would see anti-idling zones introduced across the city, to prevent motorists from running their engines near especially vulnerable locations like schools and hospitals. It is already illegal to idle, and motorists face a £20 fine if caught. But councils have historically found it difficult to enforce. It is hoped the four pilot anti-idling schemes to be introduced by autumn 2019 – with a view to rolling them out across the city – will help to curb the practice, though.
Lib Dem Councillor Mark Wright celebrated the proposed zones as a victory against “those irresponsible individuals who pollute our air and damage our health with their horrible, selfish laziness.” But Green Councillor Eleanor Combley warned that the proposals did not go far enough. “We need walking and cycling infrastructure and investment in public transport,” she said. “Give Bristolians a real alternative and free them from the stranglehold of the private car.”
A day spent on the streets of Bristol does as much damage as smoking between 1–2 cigarettes.
A CAZ, however, might end up exacerbating inequalities. “Charging people [to enter the city centre] is all well and good,” said Simon Holmes, headteacher of St Philips Marsh Nursery School. “But unless you put in alternatives, it’s just going to create resentment. It will be a punitive measure for people who don’t have a choice.”
St Philips Marsh Nursery School is at the epicentre of the air pollution debate. It lies in an Air Quality Management zone, which means the council closely monitors pollutant levels in the area. St Philips Causeway roars close by and, Holmes admits, “People don’t even realise we’re here, they think it’s just an industrial estate.”
“Parents are very aware of air pollution,” Holmes says. “But we don’t see a plan to address these issues.” School policies do their part: car-sharing, staggered drop-off and pick-up times to reduce congestion, and walking and cycling are encouraged. But, Holmes points out, these initiatives are a drop in the ocean in comparison with what needs to be done.
The St Philips Marsh area is the site of frenzied property speculation. Reams of planning applications, including for the much-touted Bristol Temple Enterprise Quarter, have been submitted. This regeneration is, Holmes notes, “the perfect opportunity to do something different. To provide a joined-up plan that looks at affordable housing, jobs, transport, education and green spaces.” But, he warns, “we need an integrated solution, and there’s little evidence of that currently.”
Rhetoric into reality
Stuart Phelps, a core member of RADE, a local campaign group, agrees that bold, comprehensive plans are needed to tackle air pollution—including addressing inadequate public transport and poverty.
“There’s no use going to an area like Easton, and saying you’ve got to stop using cars. Because there’s no viable alternative,” he said. “Around here, we’ve got massive amounts of housing need. It’s impossible to think that’s going to be met without huge increases in traffic, unless something radical is done in terms of transport.”
Bristol’s better-off residents should be more conscious of their impact in the city, says Phelps. He points to the example of wood burning stoves, which had virtually disappeared until becoming evermore fashionable in recent year.
There’s room for optimism though. Asked about the council’s pledge to make Bristol carbon neutral by 2030, Phelps is cautiously hopeful that this rhetoric might translate into more radical action against air pollution—and into solving the economic inequalities that underpin it. “It begins to start a conversation,” he said. “It’s very early days, but you can begin to link up people’s aspirations and their desire to see change.”
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